How did I get into this again…?
Then Souji remembered.
It began with the tenth ema from the Fox.
All this for a social link? I must be out of my mind… but I can't stop now. I've come too far to let the Fox down.
Souji sat down on the stone outcropping on the Samegawa River, his bucket full of fresh fish: Red Goldfish, Genji Ayu, Amber Seema, Inaba Trout. He even recalled the times when he had caught some of those larger fish, a smile creeping onto his lips.
"These are ugly, big bro," Nanako had commented at the dinner table one night in June, "but they taste really good! How did you do it? Huh? Tell me! Tell me!"
It had been all about the technique. Grilled, basted with lemon and seasoned to perfection, Souji made absolutely sure he could serve it to Nanako without dire consequences. Indeed, the field trip was still far too fresh in his mind, even in mid-October.
The silverette looked up at the clear autumn sky, smiling as the golden rays of the mid-afternoon sun fell on his face. It was a good day for fishing, at least. Although he knew his chances for obtaining the legendary Samegawa Guardian were far better during a rainy day, he just couldn't pass up the chance to actually enjoy the quiet moments before the Culture Festival.
Souji's thoughts turned to his friends. Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko, Kanji, Rise, Teddie, and even Naoto. They were the unexpected reasons that Souji's stay in Inaba had been so memorable, not to mention enjoyable. The silent admission of his gratitude was unexpected for him, and yet as he remembered the times he spent with them, not to mention the looming threat of goodbyes at years' end, he found himself actually craving their company. He even desired the presence of Naoto, the stiff and by-the-book detective with those enthralling silver-blue eyes that seemed to peer right into his soul each time she looked at him…
Souji jumped, yanking the fishing line out of the water as an Inaba trout fled from the retreating bait. Blushing to himself as he recalled thinking of Naoto, he looked down at his screeching cellphone. He flipped it open and held it to his ear as he recast the line, sighing to himself. "Hello?"
"Hey, partner! What's goin' on?"
Souji smiled gently as he heard Yosuke's voice on the other end. "Not much. Just fishing at the river."
"You fish? …Seriously?"
The silverette scoffed a bit. Was it really that surprising? "Yeah. Sometimes I like to catch my own food. And it's a relaxing way to spend an afternoon, better than staying cooped up in the house all the time."
"You have a point there," said Yosuke, his voice reflecting high spirits. "I was just calling to see if you wanted to do something, but if you're busy, I guess I can try calling Chie or Kanji."
"Is fishing not something you think about doing with your friends?" asked Souji, his voice slightly mischievous. "I actually wouldn't mind the company, if you're willing to try something new." It may even improve my chances of catching the Guardian… Maybe. And if not, at least we'll have some fun.
"Well…" The brown-haired teen sounded hesitant, but laughed a little after a moment passed. "Why not? It might not be too bad if it's with a friend. I'll meet you there in a bit, partner."
"Sounds good," replied Souji. "See you soon."
Closing his phone as Yosuke hung up, Souji leaned back as he recast his line, grinning a little wider than before. I'll take every chance to hang out I can get.
"Wait, wait! Why are they here, too?"
"What? You don't WANT us here, Souji-kun?"
"That's just mean. We thought it would be fun to try it too…"
Souji felt his rebuttal die in his throat as Chie and Yukiko stood behind an apologetic Yosuke with hurt looks upon their faces, fishing rods and tackle boxes in their hands.
"I'm sorry, man!" said Yosuke genuinely. "They saw me leaving Junes with the equipment I bought and asked me where I was going! Next thing I knew, they were telling me how good an idea it was and that they wanted to join in too!"
"It's alright…" said Souji with a slight sigh, a smile crossing his lips in spite of himself. "It was just unexpected, that's all. You both are welcome to join us," he turned to the two girls, who brightened up immediately, "but next time, at least call me beforehand so I know you're coming."
"That's reasonable," nodded Yukiko. "We're sorry, Souji-kun."
"Actually, I thought you both might have been bored," interjected Yosuke as he sat down next to Souji. "That's why I was trying to talk you out of it."
"Bored with the idea of catching free food?" laughed Chie. "No way! I like fishing!"
"I've never done this before," said Yukiko as she sat on Souji's other side, peering at the odd assortment of baits in her tacklebox. "Hey, Chie, should I use this plastic worm here, or the shiny plastic bead with the wings?"
"Why not just use a real worm?" asked Yosuke.
"I couldn't!" gasped Yukiko, looking appalled. "The poor worms…"
"Yukiko, you really are strange sometimes," sighed Chie, shaking her head and smiling. "You'd seriously feel bad for the worms?"
Souji chuckled to himself as his three good friends conversed around him. His eyes focused on the bobber at the end of his line slowly moving up and down. He felt the rod shudder heavily in his hands, and his grip tightened as he remembered the sensation the huge fish always gave before—
Souji was on his feet, pulling at the strong fish that had taken the bait. He didn't notice the gawks on the others' faces as he maintained pressure on the hooked fish, and he vaguely heard their cheers as he brought his prey closer to the stone docks, examining the movements under the water and tugging at just the right moments.
"Yosuke, grab it!" called Souji as he lifted the long body of a huge fish out of the river. Yosuke held a large bucket under the squirming fish as Souji gently dropped it inside, unfastening the hook from the toothless mouth.
"Wow, look at the size of that thing!" cried Chie as she peered into the bucket. "That would be a REAL meal!"
"Don't frighten the poor thing…" said Yukiko, looking apologetically at the captured fish.
"Great job!" said Yosuke, patting Souji on the back. "I knew you were strong, but WOW… that had to take a lot of upper body strength."
"Well, we DO train in the TV world," the silverette replied, and Yosuke conceded to the point with a laugh and a shrug.
"That was awesome, senpai! You're so talented~!"
"Rise-san, please. You'll frighten the fish away if you yell like that."
Souji turned toward the sound of the new voices. Rise and Naoto were moving swiftly down the stairs, followed by Kanji and Teddie.
Rise kept her hands behind her back and smiled at Souji with interest, her eyes peering out from under heavy lids. "But it was sooo cool, Naoto-kun! I mean, the way senpai just showed that ugly fish who's boss…"
"I do admit, it was an admirable feat." Naoto nodded to Souji in acknowledgement. "But it isn't really enough to merit such extravagant praise."
"Hey, cut senpai some slack, Naoto," grinned Kanji. "These ain't the easiest fish to reel in, even for strong guys."
"Wow, is this a pet, Sensei?" asked Teddie, his blue eyes shining with innocence as he peered down into the bucket. "Can I keep it? It's so cute!"
Everyone turned to look at Teddie, his words driving everyone into an awkward silence.
"Anyway…" Chie turned back to Souji, her brow creased in curiosity. "How many more fish do you need, Souji-kun? Or are you trying to get something in particular?"
"Well…" Souji put his right hand on his hip as he considered his words. He had wondered whether they would ask him about his goal today. "…Actually, I've been asked to catch a specific fish."
"Really?" Yosuke laughed, giving Souji's left shoulder a playful punch. "Which one are you going for? The Guardian?" He grinned more broadly, obviously intending the verbal jab as a joke. However, as Souji looked away from his good friend, the laughter died in his throat, and the mischief in the brunette's eyes was replace with dull shock.
"…You're kidding," whispered Yukiko, shaking her head in awe. "No one has ever caught the Guardian! Some people have even said that it doesn't even exist!"
"Oh, it's here."
Everyone turned as Kanji spoke, surprised to find a confident smile on his face. "Yeah, I've seen it before. Right here. I was just hangin' out here havin' a picnic with Ma one Sunday last year, and it jumped right out of the water. It was a damn monster, I tell ya. Just about scared me shitless. But Ma knew what it was right away. She said she saw it one time when she was younger, when some guy almost caught it until the line broke or somethin'."
"So this… 'Guardian' does exist?" asked Naoto, her eyes shining with interest. "I… suppose we could solve the mystery, if at all possible."
"But Naoto-kuuuuun~…" cooed Rise, peering at the sleuth with an amused grin. "I thought fishing was a pointless hobby! You said so yourse—Mmmph!" Rise blinked as her mouth was covered by Naoto's hand.
"Th-that's not what I said!" Naoto retorted, stuttering slightly. "I… Well, yes, perhaps I DID say that before. But this isn't pointless! It's debunking a possible myth, or proving something as truth! This is a worthy cause!"
"I wanna see the Guardian!" said Teddie with boundless enthusiasm, hopping up and down on the spot. "If anyone can catch it, Sensei can!"
"…No pressure," said Yosuke with a wink to the silverette, who sighed softly as he brought his hand up to rub his temple. "Seriously, we'll support you here one hundred percent."
"I… don't want to keep you guys from doing anything that needs to be done, though," said Souji truthfully. "I may be here all afternoon, and all night. If you all have to go…"
"We'll be fine, Souji-kun," said Yukiko reassuringly. "You know, I may be able to bring a portable grill from the inn… We can camp out here and have grilled fish for dinner!"
"That's an excellent idea!" cried Chie with a grin. "I can almost taste it now!"
"Uhhh…" Kanji looked from the girls to Souji, and back again. "Maybe we should let someone else cook the fish? I mean… no offense, but…"
"Don't look at me!" said Rise, shaking her head slowly. "I'll just put too much hot spice on it!"
"Perhaps you might allow me the chance to cook?" said Naoto, stepping forward. "All I would need is a cookbook and the proper ingredients, which I'm sure we can procure at the Inn. I'll compensate you for them, of course, if you wish it, Amagi-san."
"Oh, I'm sure Mother won't mind," replied Yukiko, smiling brightly.
"Alright! You guys go and get the stuff, and we'll see about trying to get that Guardian," said Yosuke, looking at the four fishing poles. "Hey, Rise-chan, would you like to try it out?"
"No thanks, Yosuke-kun," said Rise, making a face as she shuddered slightly. "Fishing's icky, and I don't really like worms."
"But they're so cute..."
Everyone turned to stare at Yukiko with wide eyes, and the black-haired beauty had the grace to blush at her obviously unexpected comment.
"...Let's... go to the inn now, shall we?" said Chie, pulling Yukiko with her as Naoto followed, shaking her head in ill-concealed amusement.
Afternoon soon progressed to evening, and the smell of grilling fish soon pervaded the Samegawa. Naoto, wise in her planning, made certain to bring a table and some chairs with them from the Inn, employing Kanji's and Teddie's help. In between attempts at drawing out the Guardian, Souji managed to provide Naoto with a few bits of advice about cooking that she wouldn't have obtained from the recipe book. The detective appeared impressed by the effectiveness of the silverette's suggestions, and soon everyone was busy enjoying their impromptu fish dinner.
"Too bad," sighed Teddie. "I really would have liked it as a pet. Buuuut…" The blonde-haired youth licked his lips as he took another bite of his meal, "it tastes REALLY good! Thanks, Nao-chan!"
"Yes, this is delicious!" agreed Yukiko after savoring a piece of her own cutlet. "Really, I had no idea you were such an excellent cook!"
"I… It was nothing special," muttered Naoto, blushing slightly under the brim of her hat. "I… Souji-san provided some advice. I merely followed the directions in the book."
"Some people can't even do that, though," said Yosuke sagely. "I mean, look at Chie—OW! Hey, you didn't have to poke me THAT hard!" The brunette rubbed the back of his hand, glaring at the offending fork in Chie's hand which had prodded him so fiercely.
"Man, I can't eat another bite…" sighed Kanji contentedly, pushing his paper plate back onto the table.
"Good thing, too," grinned Rise with a giggle. "You ate almost half of that big fish as it is, Kanji-kun~"
Everyone, including Naoto, laughed as Kanji blushed and rubbed the back of his neck.
Souji peered out into the Samegawa's waters, his eyes falling on the fading sunset. Some stars were already emerging into existence above them, along with a beautiful crescent moon. The cool, clean evening air filled the silverette's lungs as he took in every bit of Inaba that he could savor. To him, this was home. His friends beside him, laughing and joking and having a good time, were as much a part of it as his uncle and cousin. But so was the flowing river beneath him, the green grass of the upper floodplain, the windmills spinning gently on the hilltops nearby, the shop-lined street of the marketplace, the densely-stocked floors of Junes, the moderately populated high school, and the high hill that overlooked the small hamlet. To Souji, all of this was home, and it was precious to him.
"Are you well, senpai?"
Souji blinked out of his thoughts, turning to see the curious face of Naoto peering down at him.
"Oh, yeah. I'm fine. Thanks, Naoto." He smiled in gratitude, motioning for the detective to sit beside him, which she did.
"Forgive me, senpai. I didn't mean to interrupt your thoughts." The blue-haired sleuth was genuine in her apology, but she looked out at the river as though trying to see what Souji had seen.
"Oh, it's nothing," replied the teen as he checked his fishing line. "Just remembering why I call this place home, that's all."
"That isn't 'nothing,' senpai," said Naoto with a slight smile as she looked at him. "Home is a very important concept. We define it as a place where we can let down our guard. It's a place where we feel secure, safe, and happy in our existence. It's where our friends are, and where we experience a large part of our joy and sorrow. So you see, 'home' is a major part of our human existence. Without it, we tend to be quite lost."
"…I never thought of you as a philosopher before now, Naoto," said Souji with a soft smile.
"Well, there is a large degree of logic in philosophy," replied Naoto, returning the smile. "But be that as it may, I'm very glad you consider this place home, Souji-san. Perhaps in time, I, too, will consider this place home."
"You're off to a good start, at least," suggested Souji.
"Why is that, senpai?" asked Naoto, curious.
"You have friends."
"…I hardly consider Rise-san and Kanji-san friends. But they're getting there, I suppose."
"…And what about me?" asked Souji.
"You? What… I don't…" Naoto blinked, flushing slightly. "I… Well, we do talk often… and considering the fact that we have begun investigating that… one particular case, I suppose… Um…"
Souji's and Naoto's eyes met, and a deeper blush graced Naoto's pink cheeks. Against her will, a smile emerged upon her usually stoic face.
"Perhaps… you're right, senpai…" whispered Naoto, almost hesitant in her admission. "You… have stayed, haven't you?"
As Souji opened his mouth to reply, he felt what was possibly the strongest tug on his line that he had ever experienced while fishing. Almost losing the pole entirely, he struggled to maintain his grip on the handle, just barely succeeding as he rose to his feet.
"…Souji-san? Is it… Do you think it's—" Naoto got to her feet, her own eyes widening with excitement as her intuitive brain put together the close string of events.
"I think so!" growled Souji through gritted teeth. "This is… This has to be it!"
"Wha…? Souji? What's going on?" asked Yosuke, turning around to gaze as his best friend.
"I think he's got it hooked!" cried Naoto, her composure shattered from the excitement. "The Guardian!"
Kanji swore loudly. Rise and Yukiko squealed in unison. Teddie gasped in awe.
"Souji-kun! Don't lose it!" yelled Chie as she moved up to help her friend, her hands grasping the bare parts of the handle. "Oh, man… I hope we don't mess this up!"
"We won't!" replied Souji with total confidence. "Not if we work together!" He felt other hands grab him and keep him steady as others clasped around his and Chie's.
"This is so exciting!!" shouted Rise, and Souji could feel her shaking with excitement and adrenaline. Or was that himself?
"Calm down, Rise-san!" called Naoto, who had regained her composure. Souji noticed her blush had deepened because she had lost her cool, however. "We need to keep our heads! Don't let Souji-san get pulled into the river! Yosuke-san and Chie-san, don't pull too hard, or you might break the line! This will require precise timing!"
"Pull when I give the signal," said Souji with authority. "The rest of you, keep us steady. We only have one shot at this, so let's make it a good one."
"One shot is all we need, senpai," said Kanji confidently. "We're a team, after all! We've handled worse than this cocky bastard!"
"D-dude, don't piss it off!!" reprimanded Yosuke as he and Souji both felt the line tug firmly in their grasp.
The massive fish was strong, without a doubt, but even such a powerful creature could only expend energy for so long. Souji maintained pressure on the line with his friends' help as he waited patiently for the tension in the line to begin lessening, the struggles of his huge prey easing for the briefest of moments…
"Pull!!" yelled the silverette, and those who held the pole heaved with all their might as the others kept them from falling over. With a loud splash, the Guardian flew out of the cold river, the majestic lord of the Samegawa squirming in near desperation as it battled desperately to return to the waters.
"Bucket!" called Yosuke, who seemed to do a double-take. "No way! We don't have one big enough, do we?!"
"Taken care of!" shouted Naoto as she and Kanji moved to bring a cooler onto the stone platform. The teens holding the pole dropped the large fish into the basin as others immediately began filling it with river water.
"Omigosh! Look at the size of that thing!" squealed Rise, her eyes wide with awe. "I've never seen a fish so big before!"
"Very impressive," agreed Yukiko, wiping her brow with the sleeve of her blouse. "It looks a little like those ancient fish fossils we see in the museums…"
"Really?" asked Chie with undisguised curiosity. "I've never paid attention to those old rocks… but this is too cool! Look at it!"
"It looks kinda like a big goldfish," observed Kanji, folding his arms over his chest. "I'll say this much, though. It's one of a kind."
"It certainly is," said a sagely voice nearby. Turning, the group saw the old fishing guru walking toward them, peering into the cooler with an air of pride and humility. "My my… I never thought I'd manage to see this magnificent fish in my lifetime. I must thank you for indulging an old man's wish, my boy. Now I can live out the rest of my life in peace…"
"Really?" asked Teddie, his blue eyes slightly sad.
"Nah," grinned Souji, his own silver eyes twinkling. "He's gonna fish."
"Damn right, I am!" exclaimed the guru, laughing boisterously. "I'm gonna FISH!! Ya brat! Why don't we have a competition later?! Wahahaha!"
"Sounds like fun," replied Souji with a grin.
"I have to ask, though…" The old man peered up at Souji inquisitively. "What are you going to do with the Guardian, eh? Fry it up? Keep it as a pet?"
"Oh, can we, Sensei? Can we, pleeeeeease??" cried the bear, practically on his knees.
"Teddie…" The silverette moved toward the lively blond-haired Teddie and placed his hands on his shoulders. "We just took the Guardian from its home without asking it. How do you think it feels about that?"
"Well…" Teddie peered into the cooler, and strangely enough, the large eyes of the Guardian seemed to peer right back at him, waiting to hear his answer. "Um… I think it feels sad, Sensei! We can't let it feel sad! We should let him go home, where he belongs!"
"I think that's an excellent idea," said Naoto, her silver-blue eyes gazing at Souji, shining with pride.
"After all that work," sighed Chie, pain filling her eyes, "we're just going to let it go?"
"Why not?" asked Rise, smiling brightly. "It'll give others a chance to challenge it! And besides, it would be kinda… disrespectful to do anything to it. It's been here so long, you know? Even grandma heard tales about it when she was young!"
"Yeah. It's a part of Inaba," agreed Kanji, smiling fondly at the golden-scaled fish. "It's part of our home too."
"It's settled, then," said Yosuke with a grin. "We let the Guardian go back home."
The eight friends moved the cooler to the edge of the stone outcropping and, with a heave, tipped the water and giant fish back into the river. As they watched the fish swim back to join its fellows, they were all surprised to see it leap out of the water at a grand height, waving its tail in the air before plunging back into the river with a loud splash.
"You're welcome," grinned Souji.
"Well, that was an exciting evening, wasn't it, senpai?"
Souji and Naoto walked along the road, the stars shining brightly above them. The group had returned all of the borrowed furniture to the inn moments ago, and had gone their separate ways. Since Naoto's lodgings were on the way home, Souji took it upon himself to accompany her.
"It was," admitted the silverette with a smile. "I usually just fish by myself, so I never really thought of calling anyone to join me. It was a nice change."
"It really was," agreed Naoto, adjusting her cap. "Even I had fun, and I didn't even fish."
"We could try again sometime," suggested Souji. "Just the two of us."
"Possibly," said Naoto noncommittally. "But I'm more interested in reading than physical activity. Although… I wouldn't mind being with you while you fish. I… enjoy your company, senpai."
The silverette caught the hint of a blush under the sleuth's cap in spite of the dark night. "I'd like that very much, Naoto. It's a date, the—"
"S-senpai!" gasped the detective, her blush deepening. "Please, it… isn't nice to joke about such things…"
"Who said I was joking?" grinned Souji. The smile faded, however, as Naoto gave him 'the look.' "Okay, maybe it was a joke."
"Indeed," said Naoto with a sigh. "We need to be serious. Especially since I've figured out where the next item will be in the Phantom Thief case."
"You know where it is?" asked Souji, blinking in astonishment.
"Naturally," smiled Naoto confidently. "Meet me in the northern market district tomorrow, near the shrine. I think we'll actually catch our troublemaker in the act this time."
Souji couldn't help but wonder what tomorrow would bring. Yet something inside him told him that his good Fortune would continue, and he had no reason to doubt his intuition.
"Oh... and congratulations on your success, senpai. That truly was an inspirational catch."
"Thanks, Naoto." Souji noticed they had reached Naoto's lodgings without realizing it.
"I'll see you tomorrow, then, senpai," said Naoto with a smile. "Have a safe trip home."
"Wait," said Souji impulsively. "Do... you feel like this is home to you, too?"
"Huh? I... well..." The sleuth appeared stunned by the question. "Hm... I've never honestly considered. However, given current circumstances..."
Souji awaited Naoto's response with infinite patience. He was surprised, and pleased, to find her smiling after a moment of consideration.
"...Yes. I do consider this place a home, of sorts, I suppose."
"...Then that's good," replied Souji, returning the smile. "I'm glad."
"You should be..." murmured Naoto, her silver eyes shimmering in the starlight as she removed her cap. "...You're the one who has made it so."